Among the iconic designs of vibrant post-war Italy, few capture the essence of La Dolce Vita like Vespas and Lambrettas, the free-spirited motor scooters that brought mobility to the masses and became popular across Italy and later around the world.
While the two companies are still making scooters, these early models – whose wailing two-stroke engines emit puffs of aromatic smoke – are by far the most sought-after by collectors, some of which cost as much as $ 30,000.
But just as vintage scooters reach new heights in popularity, a wave of emissions regulations to reduce pollution threatens their access to Europe’s inner cities. There is an opportunity in every regulation, however, and a lifelong scooter enthusiast has grabbed it by the exhaust.
Niall McCart, an Irishman from Armagh City, received his first Vespa when he was 16.
“A two-stroke is a very simple mechanical structure,” said McCart with a humility common to mechanically gifted. “I could fix it with a screwdriver and hammer” – a skill that would eventually serve him well in rallies along the English coast and on extensive tours of Europe and India.
In 1989, at the age of 21, Mr. McCart moved to London, where he worked as a mechanic in a scooter shop after working in construction and delivering packages on a Vespa. In 2000 he opened his own company in a garden shed. Today his business, Retrospective Scooters, is located in a 3,500-square-foot warehouse in Walthamstow in the East End.
As Mr. McCart’s business grew, so did the restrictions on older vehicles. The first low-emission zones in the European Union were established in 1996. By 2018 there were over 260 that are still rising.
London has such a zone as well as a particularly strict zone with extremely low emissions in the city center. The stricter zone introduced in April 2019 will be expanded significantly this October. Polluting scooter owners must pay a daily fee of £ 12.50 (approximately $ 17) to drive in. Failure to pay can result in a heavy fine.
In 2017, when the end of cheap and dirty scooters was approaching, Mr. McCart asked a friend and fellow scooter enthusiast, John Chubb, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make our old Vespas electric?”
Mr. Chubb remembered the moment vividly. “We were sitting in a tent at a music festival in Cornwall and he said the future was electrifying. I said, “I think I could build one of these.”
He could also bring a range of technical skills to the project. Mr. Chubb is a retired Royal Navy commander with degrees in electrical engineering and missile science. He’s also an expert on anti-ship missiles, a qualification the utility of which, while may not be quantifiable, can’t hurt.
Mr. McCart’s letter was explicit. The conversion “shouldn’t affect the original design or setup of the scooters in any way,” he said. “They don’t cut or weld or destroy the original case.” And in order to maintain the value of a scooter, the process had to be reversible.
An encounter with a Chinese manufacturer at a motorcycle fair in Milan in 2017 turned out to be crucial.
“The Chinese have been driving electric scooters for over 15 years,” said McCart. “You did it and did it and perfected it. They had created everything. “
Meanwhile, Mr. Chubb worked with the technical director of QS Motor, a company in Zhejiang Province that makes motors for electric scooters and e-bikes.
“We had a really good chat,” said Mr. Chubb. “I had done a number of first principles calculations about the performance of an electric motor and how it would work in an electric scooter. I’ve seen all of his equations and he and I did the same.
“Seeing this data was very interesting,” he continued, “because we knew exactly where the sweet spot was in terms of the specifications of what we were going to run as an engine, and we could do it more or less with optimal efficiency operate.”
Mr. McCart and Mr. Chubb developed the basic plan: unplug the gas tank and insert a lithium-ion battery. Replace the scooter’s original swing arm (which supports the engine and rear wheel) with a custom swing arm that holds a wheel with a built-in hub motor.
Mr. Chubb set to work on the prototype and met regularly with Mr. McCart, who refined various components. In June 2018 McCart presented his creation – an electrified Vespa Primavera from 1976 – at the Vespa World Days rally in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The initial reaction was skeptical. “These people were purists,” said Mr. McCart. “They objected when they saw it,” he recalled, “but as soon as they drove it to the other end of the parking lot and back again, they had the biggest grin on their faces.”
One driver made a crucial suggestion: “You have to sell it as a kit.” Mr. McCart, who had planned to offer electrical conversions only as a service, accepted the idea. “I thought he was right. I really have to make it easy. ‘The next step was to create a plug and play kit. “
Three years later, Retrospective Scooters is selling kits for five types of vintage Vespas and Lambrettas. Each battery costs £ 3,445 (about $ 4,750) and contains a 64-volt, 28-amps-per-hour battery that can get a scooter up to a top speed of 50 mph and run 30 to 35 miles on one charge.
Certain scooters can hold two or three batteries. For example, a Lambretta GP equipped with three lithium-ion units can travel 120 miles between charges. However, Mr. McCart believes a single battery is sufficient.
“Let’s not forget what scooters were invented for – traveling within 20 to 30 miles of your home,” he said.
To date, Mr McCart has sold 60 kits – 24 in the UK (20 of which are installed in his store) and 36 to overseas customers, mainly and somewhat surprisingly to Mr McCart in the US.
“I was expecting more to go to Europe,” he said, “but there is a lot of bureaucracy and official vehicle modification inspections so there really is no incentive for Europeans to buy our kit with all of this against them.”
Last summer, Danny Montoya, the owner of a children’s woodworking studio in San Francisco, installed a kit on his 1973 Vespa Rally 180. Mr Montoya had owned the scooter since 1999 but had grown dissatisfied with its pollution in recent years, not to mention the constant stench of petroleum.
A skilled handyman, he initially considered cobbling together his own electrical kit using information from internet message boards, but when he came across Mr. McCarts he thought, “Whoa, this guy actually did the job. “Although the award gave him a break after corresponding with Mr. McCart who promised to help with technical issues, Mr. Montoya said,” OK, that’s legitimate. “
Mr. Montoya estimates that he spent 20 to 30 hours on the project. The most complex part of this was making sure all electrical connections were correct. Mr McCart admits that at this point in late 2020, the installation guide was rudimentary. Since then, he explained, the kit’s design and instructions have been improved so that someone with basic mechanical skills should be able to complete the installation in about 16 hours.
These days, Mr. Montoya is looking for an excuse to ride his electrified machine that works exactly as advertised, delivering 30 miles for a fee even in the hills of San Francisco. Mr. Montoya remembered his first trip and said, “It was very strange. A normal scooter is so loud you can only hear the engine. It’s so quiet, all you hear is the wind. “
One last afternoon, while Mr. Montoya was driving past a few times, a reporter tried to discern which was louder – the soft hum of the engine or the sound of the tire treads licking the sidewalk.
The new incarnation is so secretive that Mr. Chubb states that “if you live in a quiet village, people walk right in front of you”. He studies sound generators that can produce anything from the roar of a Harley-Davidson to the futuristic bat of a “Star Wars” podracer.
Mr. McCart, who commutes every day with his electrified Vespa, approaches careless pedestrians differently: “I yell at them. I say ‘Oi!’ ”